adolescence, attachment parenting, Awesome Women, Big, books, Books, children of cancer patients, Ireland, Janis Ian, Library, Life Lessons, Mother daughter relationship, Mother enough, mothering and guilt, movie Big, Mundanity, Northern Ireland, Poetry, Portland, reading, Reading, Summer Reading Flowchart, Summer Reading Infographic, Tom Hanks, wish come true, Words of Wisdom, World Book Day, Writing
After a fortune-telling machine grants his wish, 13 year-old Josh Baskin begins an adventure in the world of work and romance and in the adult body of Tom Hanks. We don’t need to watch the movie Big to predict the ending of the timeless tale behind it. We know that the boy who falls in love with the woman will eventually be pulled back to his thirteen year-old life, so we aren’t surprised by her response to his suggestion that she go back with him. “I’ve been there before. It’s hard enough the first time … you know what I mean?” she asks, and the almost immediate reality, “You don’t know what I mean …” We smile too, almost conspiratorially, as we watch him walk away from her, his body shrinking within the business suit that had fit just moments before, falling out of shoes that are too big. Be careful what you wish for …
As I have written before, my mother has a flair for transforming the most mundane task into something altogether fascinating. Just yesterday, as we talked on the phone, she was “doing a bit of ironing,” which transported me back to a typical childhood scene. She leaning over the ironing board, smoothing out with hot steam the wrinkles in my father’s shirts, pausing – for dramatic effect – to remind me to consider the lilies, to “mark her words” that there would be plenty of time for work and plenty of fish in the sea. Implicit in her explicit admonishment not to wish my life away, was the fact that she was not wishing my life away. Mostly, she struck an artful balance between shielding me from the world while empowering me to find the voice to explore its realities. But not all the time. Especially not when I was in the throes of the kind of teenage angst found in a Janis Ian ballad. In those moments, she must have longed for the hands of the clock to fly back to an easier time.
What goes around really does come around. Sometimes, when my teenage daughter announces, one hand on her hip, that she cannot wait to have her own apartment in a place where it rains all the time – notably not Ireland, the country of my birth, but somewhere infinitely more hip like Portland or Seattle – I find myself wanting to tell her that all of it, even the growing up part, is such a bad idea! It lasts but a moment, this longing to hold her as an infant in my arms once again, but it is a powerful moment that holds me in its grip just long enough to make me feel selfish and rather guilty.
Guilt and mothering. To satisfy my curiosity, I wondered where it would take me if I fed Google with those three words. Hardly surprising and almost instantaneously, our favorite search engine dutifully produced about 842,000 results on the topic. Somewhere in there, I’m sure of it, lies a discussion of the media maelstrom that swirled around the TIME magazine cover featuring a previously unknown Jamie Lynne Grumet breast-feeding her three year old son. How the ratings soared as all the experts weighed in on the subject of attachment parenting, extended breast-feeding, “baby-wearing,” and co-sleeping. The topic du jour for longer than a day, I remember everyone seemed to have something to say about it. For me, within all the noise was the matter of guilt, induced not by the cover photograph of a little boy at his mother’s breast, but by the question emblazoned in red next to it.
“Are you MOM ENOUGH?”
Naturally, I wanted to respond, “Why, yes. Yes, I am. Of course I am.” But perhaps the folks at TIME weren’t talking to me. Perhaps they were referring to some other woman whose credentials in mothering were inferior to Ms. Grumet’s or mine? No. They were speaking directly to me, and off I went to second-guess my expertise as a mother. But first, I had to grapple with the meaning of “enough” and “you” in the context of mothering, as opposed to grappling with these in the context of an Uncle Sam pointing at the whole country and saying he needed it.
Am I enough of a mother? What does TIME mean by “enough?” I know what I mean when I compare something “good” to that which I find “good enough.” (In the end, I think I’d prefer something a bit more sentimental as my epitaph than “here lies one who was mom enough.”) Perhaps I am taking it too far. Then again, probably not any farther than countless headlines and results of clinical studies have taken me over the course of my mothering, many of which have prompted me to question if any and every difficulty experienced by my child could be attributed to some tiny but critical error made by me. Struggling academically? Bottle-feeding might be the culprit. Low birth weight? Poor nutritional choices on the part of the mother during pregnancy. Talkative in class? A little immature? It must be something to do with her always being the youngest, at least six months younger than everyone else in the class. Whose fault was that, exactly? After all, Arizona’s Education Code stipulates that a child is considered “five years old” and eligible for kindergarten only if her date of birth falls not in December but before September 1 of the current school year. Clearly, this was poor family planning. Again, my fault. Recurrent ear infections? As a particularly cranky on-call pediatrician guilt-tripped me one Saturday morning when my child was screaming with a double ear infection: “Well, she is a day-care baby so what do you expect?” I remember retorting that I only taught part-time at the college. Unfazed, he reiterated to me, as though I were in fifth grade, “A day-care baby is a day-care baby.” I was just not “mom enough” for the good doctor. Nor was he “good enough” for me. I will not write here the retort I had silently reserved for him – my mother is reading this, after all.
Ah, but I digress. One of my wishes came true this weekend, when I discovered that my teenage daughter loves to read. Real books, too. None of these starting-at-the-back manga narratives that I still don’t “get,” not even the stuff of all those electronic games I railed against – for the Nintendo DS, then the Game Cube, the Wii, the Itouch, and the Ipad. It is almost painful to acknowledge that only a few years ago, the mere promise of a new game was almost enough to convince her to read from an actual book with actual pages for fifteen minutes. That and perhaps the tiniest of guilt trips . . .
Imagine my glee this afternoon as my daughter rattled off her opinion about Chinua Ahebe’s Things Fall Apart and recommended that I read it. Coolly, I pretended I had never heard of the novel, while visions of our very own mother-daughter book club danced in my head. Just yesterday, while strains of Ray la Montagne’s “Trouble” on filled the car, my brilliant girl noticed “Ray Montag” on the radio display which led her to begin a conversation about Ray Bradbury’s recent passing and Montag, the book-burning fireman, in Fahrenheit 451. A conversation. With me. About a novel. Be still my heart! Could this possibly be the same recalcitrant reader who, when confronted with her seventh grade summer reading assignment, counted out loud the 211 pages of My Brother Sam is Dead, painstakingly did the math, and then announced that a fortnight should take care of it, at the glacial pace of a chapter a day?
And then an epiphany. She is reading different books, but she has been reading all along. Reading her world, assessing the situations in which she finds herself, sometimes through no choice of her own. It matters not if it is manga or Shakespeare, the label on the back of a shampoo bottle, a text from a friend, a comic, a peace sign, a pink ribbon, a green light. Inhabiting the world of words and symbols, printed or digital, she has been reading, finding meaning. And when it means something, it really matters.
I have written before about how my daughter’s adolescence was unfairly interrupted by my cancer diagnosis. Some day, when she emerges from what I once heard Whoopi Goldberg brilliantly describe as “the teen tunnel,” I will ask her if reading books was the thing that helped her through it. In the meantime, I am curious. Which books should she read this summer? She has already worked her way through the infographic below. The result? Animal Farm. As it turns out, an unopened hardback edition has been waiting for her in my bookcase for almost as long as she has been alive.